The feature article in the current issue of Seattle Weekly dives into the subdivision controversy that fired up Blaine residents earlier this year. In short, developer Dan Duffus makes his career out of spinning off backyard lots from single-family properties to build new “tall-and-skinny” houses — and residents all over the city are upset at the intrusion of “substandard” homes in single-family neighborhoods.
A few highlights from the Weekly article:
It did not help when neighbors found out that Duffus, along with an array of builders he works with, was taking advantage of a zoning loophole that allows building on certain undersized lots whose existence can only be discovered in historical documents. Nor were neighbors appeased by Duffus’ presentation of himself as a green developer creating something the city says it wants: urban density.
Meanwhile, a block of Montlake has incorporated itself into a nonprofit group—the Blaine Street Preservation Committee, complete with its own Facebook page—to fight a three-story house that is planned for a backyard there after the deck on the existing house was chopped off to make room for it. The group has barraged DPD with complaints, but has been told that the building permit was not subject to public notice or appeal.
While the article has no shortage of quotes from upset neighbors, it also goes on to frame the issue in debates about affordable housing, urban versus suburban development and single-family preservation.
From Queen Anne to Montlake, the same type of controversy was playing out, with neighbors beside themselves with rage. Their fury found the ear of City Council member Richard Conlin, who says he intends to do something about it—driving Duffus to lament that the city will be chasing away desperately needed housing in a growing city.
“We believe in infill,” [Duffus] says, calling it the “greenest kind of development there is. We’re not tearing down the forest in Issaquah.” …
He also says he’s not interested in making Seattle look like Bellevue, with sweeping suburban lawns. “We believe homes should not be on big lots,” he says. To illustrate why, he hops in his car and offers a tour of the neighborhood around Zoka. He stops first in front of a development he had nothing to do with: twin homes built on full-sized lots. Each sold for $1.3 million. That’s the thing about 5,000-square-foot lots, he says: They’re expensive.
Similarly, Montlake’s Miller points out that her neighborhood is already dense. “We are not like Broadmoor,” she says. “We don’t have big yards and pools.” Indeed, her portrait of the neighborhood suggests that it fights suburban sprawl. Full of kids, Miller says Montlake offers a family-friendly feel “without being in suburbia or having McMansions.”
An update on the 1905 Blaine property — it is up for sale again as a flip with a new kitchen and new fence separating its
old backyard new neighboring property. A big pile of debris on the Duffus site awaits construction of a new 3-story tall-and-skinny.
Read the Seattle Weekly feature here. A previous post on Montlaker about this issue is here. And for more single-family development reading pleasure, you can find Seattle DPD Director Diane Sugimura’s response letter explaining the Blaine decision, and why all of this is allowed by the building code, after the jump:
Originally published July 26, 2012
Dear Interested Neighbors:
We have received letters, phone calls, and emails from many of you expressing concern about the proposed development of a parcel adjacent to the house at 1905 East Blaine Street. I do understand your concerns regarding the small lot and the design of the proposed structure, which you feel is incompatible with the traditional design of houses in the neighborhood.
I will try to explain what determinations have been made at this point, and the code provisions that direct our authority. Please accept my apologies for not responding individually to each of you, but I believe a general letter addressing the numerous concerns raised, will be more informative.
The proposed development site is in an SF 5000 zone, where the minimum lot area requirement is generally 5000 square feet. The parcel where the new house is proposed has an area of approximately 2457 square feet. The adopted code includes a variety of lot size exceptions. We have determined that this particular lot qualifies for an exception in Section 23.44.010.B.1.d of the Land Use Code. This exception applies to lots that were separately recognized in the public records prior to 1957. Seattle’s Land Use and Zoning Codes have included lot area exceptions for historic lots ever since the 1950s, when minimum lot area standards were first codified.) In this case, there were multiple historic records, including records of conveyances, a mortgage and tax records, which treated the parcel in question as a separate lot. Although the parcel has been under common ownership with the house at 1905 East Blaine Street, the parcel was not used to meet required development standards for that house, (such as yard requirements), that were in effect in 1931 when the permit for that house was issued.
People have expressed concern about lack of notice to the neighbors. A number of projects reviewed by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) involve “discretionary” review, which includes required public notices and an opportunity for neighbors to comment, and the opportunity for DPD to impose conditions, (as appropriate), based on public concerns. However, most of the permits issued by this Department do not involve substantial exercise of discretion, and based on the adopted code, are not subject to public notice and comment requirements. In particular, a determination that a property qualifies for separate development under a lot area exception is based purely on whether specific standards in the code are met.
While public notice and comment period is not required for this type of project, as I have mentioned to several of you, we will, of course, carefully review comments received during our review process.
An application for a proposed house on the property is currently under review, which is also not a discretionary decision. The proposed development must be evaluated solely based on the development standards provided in the Land Use Code. Although we are conscious of the concerns some of you have raised about whether the house will fit in with the nearby older homes, we have no legal authority to condition or restrict the development on that basis, if the proposed structure meets the applicable development standards. However, copies of your letters have been forwarded to the planner who is performing the zoning review for that project, so that she will be aware of the concerns you have raised, as she reviews the project.
Although I know this may not be the answer you had hoped for, I hope that this letter helps to clarify our practices and the scope of our regulatory authority. Thank you very much.
Sincerely, Diane M. Sugimura, Director